And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babywrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”(Luke 2:8-14, ESV)
When we read any type of narrative, it is normal to picture how we think the scene might have looked in the mind’s eye. There are numerous portraits of Jesus, the Apostles, Joseph and Mary, Old Testament characters, and so forth, but the only thing we know for certain is that we do not know what any of these people looked like. Some things we do know; Jesus did not have blue eyes. When artists of the Renaissance created Biblical portraits, they unashamedly made the characters look like twelfth century Europeans. We can accurately predict Jesus would have been short, dark skinned, dark eyed, and looked very Hebrew. Scripture teaches he looked pretty much the same as every other adult Jewish male of his time. Just like there are certain things we know are not exactly right about the most popular images of Jesus, we can safely say that certain artistic liberties have been taken with the portrayal of angels.
The Bible does not have a whole lot to say about angels. As far as we know, they do not eat or sleep as humans do. Their appearance can be quite human, however. We are warned that many have entertained angels unaware, and we know that Jacob wrestled all night with an angel without knowing what he was doing. Angels do not neccisarily have gender (they neither marry nor are given in marriage), but all the names of angels given to us in scripture are male. Lucifer was the name of Satan before his fall from grace, and the others mentioned are Gabriel and Michael. The popular notion that angels are beautiful women is not supported by scripture.
What is the first thing the angel says to the shepherds? Most of the time when angels appear in the Bible (unless in disguise) the first words out of their mouths are “Do not be afraid.” There must be a reason for this. Either the stature, or brilliance, or something we are not told about angels evokes fear in regular people. Note the words “heavenly host.” Anytime the Old Testament says anything about a host it is in reference to an army. I want you to carefully consider all of this together. An angel appears to a group of shepherds whose natural tendency is to run in fear. The sky was then filled with the heavenly host, singing and praising God. This was not a choir, made up of beautiful women in choir robes; it was a vast military force, an army of angels, possibly with swords drawn ready to do battle. Is all of this baseless conjecture? I do not think so.
When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. -Joshua 5:13-14a
We know that angels can fight. Jacob wrestled with an angel the entire night and didn’t get anywhere. The first angel we meet in the Bible is placed at the entrance to Eden, holding a flaming sword that turns in every direction. Angels are warriors. When Daniel prayed (Daniel, chp. 11), the angel had to fight the forces of evil 3 weeks in order to get there with an answer. In the book of Revelation, angels wield all kind of power as they pour out judgements on the earth. So why would there be a host of angel warriors during the nativity of Jesus Christ? There is a good reason for that also.
We know a few things about Satan and how he works. At the end of time, Satan will rally the forces of evil to do battle against God and try once and for all to overthrow Him and rule the universe. We know that he tempted Jesus three times in order to derail his ministry and upset God’s plan of salvation. Jesus set aside his divinity, stepped away from his throne in heaven, to be born on earth as a tiny baby. If Satan wanted to attack, and we know that he does from time to time, what better opportunity to do away with Jesus than at his birth, when he is the weakest and most defenseless? Satan reminds Jesus during the temptation that if he so much as stubbed his toe, there would be a multitude of angels come to his aide. We know that after the temptation, Jesus was ministered to by angels. It makes perfect sense that on the night Jesus entered the world he was escorted by a multitude of the heaven host.
So let’s rethink our mental image of the Luke 2 narrative. Let’s have the angels put down the hymnals and take up the sword. It is a much more powerful image, and worthy of the coming King of Kings.